The challenging worlds of work: Neo-slavery is shaming this Republic

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Workers can, in the broadest of terms, be divided into categories where different realities prevail. Public sector workers enjoy strong agreements brokered between employers and their representatives.

That is as it should be in a rich, liberal democracy. Some, but not many, private sector workers fall into that category. However, too many rely on unions whose influence has waned.

Some private sector workers, too many to sustain the humanising social contract, work for employers who reject unions.

Most of what we regard as trophy tech companies fall into this category. Many of their employees, though generating great wealth, live from contract to contract.

This uncertainty, this constant competition for a place in the world, prioritises work over life in an unhealthy way in far too many settings — settings we support through government policies, especially investor-friendly, society-denying tax policies. That may soon change.

Laws banning zero-hours contracts, the sharpest commodification of people, came into force last month. The change was a hard-won response to the casualisation of work.

It strengthens regulations around cases where workers fill a permanent job, but are denied permanent staff rights. These regulations are, in theory at least, welcome, but, as is the case in every facet of Irish life, their relevance will depend on how they are enforced.

One area where legislation has not been enforced has been brought to light in the most shameful, challenging way by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). Migrants, who make up an ever-larger proportion of the crews on fishing vessels, are to get rights so they might be protected from trafficking and modern slavery.

Slavery? In Ireland in 2019? How can this be?

Non-European Economic Area (EEA) trawler workers will no longer be shackled to employers. They will, for the first time, be able to quit a boat to work elsewhere. The deal, concluded to block shaming litigation, comes after the union brought our Government to court for facilitating modern slavery.

The case centred on the permit scheme for fishery workers from outside the EEA. Caught red-handed, the Government has promised to stiffen rules on pay, hours of work, minimum hours of rest, and numbers of crew. The Government could do little else, especially as gardaí identified 26 men they suspected were victims of slavery in the fleet. This shames us all, but it shows the fishing industry in an odious light. Disclaimers blaming a minority cannot be indulged.

That applies to all sectors exploiting these vulnerable people.

In recent weeks, the Garda organisations met. This week, the teachers will be in conference. Our nurses, among the best-paid in the world, continue to demand improved conditions.

Each of these groups, and others, too, enjoys conditions and security beyond the wildest dreams of these enslaved fishery workers — and many of their peers, too.

This should, as our economy slows, cause us all to pause for thought. It might give us a chance to answer a simple, chilling question. Why are those who enjoy the most secure work, the best conditions, and who are paid to protect the weakest, so ineffective?

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